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Straightened out: a new nonprofit provides orthodontic services to kids in foster care

By Jeff Roedel
Leslie Lacy had no intention of steering her legal career toward representing children in foster care, and yet that path found her. The Tucson native’s experience included interning for Vice President Al Gore and focusing on family planning and special education cases after graduating from LSU Law School. But that changed when she saw for herself what the foster system truly is: an extensive, multifaceted process of healing, and one that is in need of a lot more strategic support.

Leslie Lacy
Leslie Lacy

Lacy shifted the focus of her practice, becoming Baton Rouge’s first dedicated children’s attorney through the state’s Mental Health Advocacy Service, specializing on service to minors in the foster system in 2008.

“When I was first introduced to children who had been exposed to trauma, my sacred role, as I saw it then and still see it today, was to be a good listener,” Lacy says. “And then to become their voice.”

Lacy’s voice for children grew louder with last fall’s launch of Fostering Hope Louisiana. The Baton Rouge-based nonprofit is dedicated to connecting children in foster care with orthodontists across the state to provide them with braces and oral care at no cost to the foster parents.

Foster care systems nationwide are dealing with an “oral health problem,” according to a 2018 issue of Foster Focus. The study shows almost 40% of foster children suffer from some form of dental disease. With 3,368 minors in the Louisiana foster system as of February 2021, the state could have more than 1,000 children in need of dental or orthodontic assistance.

Though one in four foster children in Louisiana are adopted each year, and according to the Department of Children & Family Services, teen adoptions were on the rise by 22% in 2019, health services for children living in the foster system can be lacking, says Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children, CASA.

“These kids need an attorney to go the distance,” says Susan Murrell, an advocate supervisor for Baton Rouge’s chapter of CASA. “Leslie has a real compassion for the things these children don’t get through foster care. Knowing that dental care was lacking for them, that really disturbed her.”

Foundation Fact: The Baton Rouge Area Foundation manages a charitable fund for Fostering Hope Louisiana and helped the nonprofit with startup services.
Brittany Butler never expected Leslie Lacy. At 17, Butler was in family court, and as Butler’s attorney, Lacy not only listened intently to her concerns and walked her through her options and best interests, she even looked like her.

“I didn’t know any lawyers growing up, especially a black woman as a lawyer, so I thought it was cool,” Butler says. “She made me feel comfortable, asking what I wanted and explaining the next steps and looking out for my best interest in foster care.”

Though she earned a scholarship to Spelman, an academically rich HBCU in Atlanta, Butler was insecure, mostly about her crooked smile, and how her imperfect teeth might affect her future. She was well-practiced at covering her mouth when she laughed, and rarely smiled big—she felt like an “ugly duckling,” she says.

Over Christmas break during her freshman year, Lacy brought Butler to Baton Rouge orthodontist James Frugé.

“Her case was so severe,” Lacy says. “When you’re like Brittany and have all the ability and potential in the world, your teeth are something you just can’t control, and I thought we needed to do something. First impression is everything.”

Lacy struck a deal with Frugé for a discounted price and paid the bill for Butler’s new braces.

“I kept saying to myself, ‘Wow, this lady cares about me,’” says Butler, now 24 and equipped with a degree from Columbia University for a career in social work. “I would have been OK with a postcard or two every semester while I was away at school, but helping me with oral care—I’m forever grateful for that.”

Brittany Butler, who got a winning smile, thanks to Fostering Hope Louisiana.
Brittany Butler, who got a winning smile, thanks to Fostering Hope Louisiana.

Frugé, the veteran founder of Frugé Orthodontics, immediately connected with Lacy’s passion to help, understanding the need for foster children to get assistance with oral care and corrective orthodontics.

“The day they get their braces on, you will immediately see a change in their self-esteem,” he says. “Their teeth can still be very crooked at the time, but now they are doing something about it, and this creates a huge emotional lift.”

Often, those in the foster system can feel isolated or forgotten about, and if their teeth are an issue, Frugé says they can feel like an outcast even more.

“Leslie kept trying to bring more foster kids and pay for them,” Frugé says. “I told her no, we needed to find another way. She felt it was so important for the well-being of these kids that they feel good about themselves, and it became a mission for her to make it happen.”

Now in social work, Butler recognizes even more how empathy and compassion are essential tools for working with clients. “Mrs. Lacy exemplified all of that, all of the time,” Butler says. “I think the meaning behind the nonprofit is ensuring that every young person becomes the best version of themselves, whether that’s through seeking healing by intensive therapy or getting a brand-new smile that makes you more confident.”

It’s Lacy’s dedication that keeps her working relationship with CASA an essential piece to Fostering Hope’s future.

“I’ve been in this field for 17 years, and Lacy takes these cases more personally than I have ever seen,” says Murrell. In 2015, CASA awarded Lacy with the Catherine Lafleur Legal Advocacy for Children and Families Award at the Together We Can Conference.

“She’s incredibly ethical, and always does her best to work a case and assist these children in need,” Murrell add.

Though a skilled attorney, Lacy admits she is a nonprofit novice. That only makes this mother of three content to take a more measured approach to do things right without a strict timetable.

“I’m in the mode now that I was when we first started Brittany with braces—it’s ‘Let’s get this process going,’” Lacy says. “Brittany was my motivation, and she and these foster children still are. The way she responded to me and this opportunity, I knew we had to push forward, to keep on.”

As CASA makes the initial assessments for orthodontic needs for foster children locally, Lacy and Dr. Frugé are connecting with other orthodontists who can help increase access by taking their new foster care program statewide.

Fundraising efforts are underway, while Lacy already is casting a big vision for expansion. She wants to move beyond dental care to subsidize services for mental health support. And not just for the children themselves but for whole foster families.

“Mental health needs for foster kids are at the bottom of the ladder,” Murrell says. “They deserve the best of the best care in that area, and they don’t get it.”

In her experience, representing nearly 200 children, Lacy says, there is a significant lack of service providers qualified in trauma therapy, a necessity for foster families.

While Lacy connects with partners and donors for the nonprofit, she’s reaching out to trauma therapists with the same message, one of specific purpose and of hope for those who could use another helping of it.

“It’s really important that we be acknowledged as a nonprofit working to make a difference,” Lacy says. “If I can get people to think about children and families in the foster system for a few minutes, just to recognize them, to think how they could need more support, then that’s a great way to start.”